The Cane Corso’s iconographic tug of war with the Neo
BY MICHAEL ERTASKIRAN There is a rich history handed down through statues, figurines, mosaics, engravings, traditions, superstitions, folklore and the like that seems to be contested between our Cane Corso enthusiasts and the fanciers of the Neapolitan Mastiff. Both lay claim to the same artifacts and call them their own. I believe both are right, and both are wrong. Clearly there are two defined varieties, the heavy and the light. In my opinion – and unfortunately for fanciers of the Mastino – the Cane Corso type is present in far more abundance. The Cane Corso is the phenotype that survived, and thrived, in the rural southern Italian countryside, or meridone. He survived because he worked for his dinner. I personally find it perplexing that the Mastino fancy would attempt to own both archetypes, particularly when the attributes of the heavy variety are so prized and sought after among the mastinari. And then there is the fact that no attempt was made to cultivate or incorporate the light version into the parameters of what would eventually be the modern Mastino. Unfortunately, the Cane Corso suffers from the fact that the Neapolitan Mastiff is generally acknowledged as Italy’s national Molosser. To that end, there is an almost institutional belief that all things Molossian are the exclusive birthright of the Neapolitan Mastiff. There has been an almost bias against the Cane Corso, (curiously similar to the rivalry that exist in Italy between north and south) when compared to the Mastino, so much so that I feel this bias has even found its way into the Italian Cane Corso standard, which is worded to mold the Corso into an almost anti-Neo. I believe a direct result of this is the proliferation of the Boxer-type Cane Corso, which was never present in historical portrayals of the breed or in the meridone prior to the breed’s recovery. Both archetypes are sufficiently represented through the ages; both are valid heirs to the Eprian Molossian, the Roman Canis pugnax and Pugnaces Britanniae. While these two great Molossers have a shared ancestry, they did not share the same road through history. The heavy type was a fierce guardian, huge and imposing, while the light version was a hunting/farm dog – swift, agile and powerful. There is a definite distinction; you need look no further than the iconography. Neapolitan Mastiff fanciers extol the virtues of this historic hunter, yet the modern Mastino is completely incapable of such tasks. The more athletic morphological type is often labeled with the pejorative “underbred.” The only nod to the light version can be seen in the original Neapolitan Mastiff standard, with the subnames Cane de Presa and Cane Corso. I believe this is because prior to the 1950s and ’60s, there was neither historical nor iconographical reference to the name Neapolitan Mastiff. The only “breed” name that survived in antiquity, and can be proven through time, would be Cane Corso. Perhaps, as Cane Corso breed expert Dr. Paolo Breber speculated in 1973, the Neapolitan Mastiff is but a very specialized version of the Cane Corso. I believe the term Cane Corso itself to be a form of iconography – its literal translation means “robust, strong dog.” It is less a breed name than a description of a type of dog needed to do a type of work associated with this breed’s historical utilizations, such as wild-boar hunting and the management of bulls. In that respect, Cane Corso is as much an adjective as it is a noun.
Cradle Of Domestication
Let us go back in time to Mesopotamia and Nineveh, the ancient Assyrian city on the banks of the Tigris River. Undoubtedly the terracotta dog from the 2nd millennium B.C. located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows characteristics of a more Mastino-type dog. His dewlap, accentuated bone and overall impression are remarkably similar to the modern Mastino. Curiously though, he does seem to have slightly convergent naso-cranial axis of the skull.
The Nineveh terracotta dog, circa 850 B.C., found in the British Museum in London and pictured here, again shows a more Mastino-type dog. He is huge in relation to the man, and again displays the characteristic dewlap and absence of any perceived agility. Assyrian bas-reliefs depict hunting dogs; while not Corso type, they clearly differ from the dogs of Nineveh and Mesopotamia. They have much tighter skin around the neck, and present a much leggier construction with a retracted abdomen. In one scene, these dogs are being restrained by their masters while going to the hunt. In another, the dogs are in full pursuit after wild stag, with spears filling the air. The question remains: Were these hunting dogs of a different variety from the dogs of Nineveh, or was pressure from man responsible for selectively evolving a dog better suited for hunting?
Heir To The Molossian
The oft-invoked Molossian of ancient times is claimed by not only the Cane Corso and Neapolitan Mastiff fancies, but also the Mastiff and many bully-type breeds. Pick up a book on any number of large working or flock-guardian-type breeds and invariably there is made mention of the Molossian, Roman Molossian or some derivative.
The Jennings Dog, a 2nd-Century Roman copy in marble of a Greek bronze, now in the British Museum. Echoes of the Molossians of Epirius? Highly disputed are the true origins of this enigmatic “breed.” They are described by various scholars of the day from long muzzled with a tuft of hair to blunt muzzled, heavy and prognathic (undershot). For certain the etymology (if not the dog) has Greek origins, as it was Greek scholars who first made mention of this dog whose origins they attributed to the Molossians of Epirus (now modern-day Albania). Alexander the Great’s mother was from Epirus, and, though disputed, he was thought to have employed war dogs from that region in his campaigns. Introduced to the Italic mainland via Greek imperialism, the Molossian provided the genetic raw material necessary for the Romans to develop an improved war dog of their own. And from the mighty Molossian sprang the Roman Canis pugnax. As history illustrates, the Romans assimilated what they conquered and improved on it. This Roman war dog was used as an auxiliary to the legions and as entertainment in the arenas against all manner of animal and human. To augment the abilities of the Canis pugnax, dogs from England were brought back to the empire. The Romans had met the Pugnaces Britanniae in battle during their European campaigns and had come to value its indomitable fighting spirit. These “imports” were added to the Roman pugnax. It was said of the Pugnaces Britanniae: “They were inflamed with the spirit of Mars the god of war.” Interestingly enough, many believe the infusion of the dogs from England is responsible for the undershot bite in the Cane Corso; it is also hypothesized that the Britanniae was originally a Molossian that had been brought to England by the seafaring Phoenicians. The Romans made the distinction between the light and heavy versions – respectively, the pugnaces (those that attacked wild animals) and the villatici (those that guarded farms). These are rough characterizations of typologies that translate into the Cane Corso and Neapolitan Mastiff. There should be little doubt that these dogs were the progenitors of Italy’s two native Molossians. The blood is surely there – perhaps diluted by foreign defilement, but nevertheless it is there.
Mosaic depicting a Molossian dog with more Cane Corso-type features.
Middle Ages To The Meridone
The fall of the Roman Empire predicated the fall of the Roman war dog. But this was not the end for this type of dog; he seemingly melted into the Italic landscape. While no longer one of the frieri (it was common practice for the Romans to strap buckets of flaming oil to the backs of their war dogs and send them to the enemy’s front lines to disrupt the opposing cavalry – these dogs were called frieri, or fire bearers), he did find a home with the Italian country folk. This Roman dog was transformed from warrior to a somewhat more peaceful existence as a farmhand, hunter and guardian. His mettle, forged on the battlefield and so versatile, now served him well in these daunting tasks in the invaluable aid of man. This age is where we find the most interesting evidence of a Cane Corso-type dog. A 3rd or 4th Century Roman mosaic depicting the wild boar hunt (Villa del Casale, Piazza Armerina) shows a very Cane Corso-like fawn dog. While I won’t presume a direct line of succession to the modern Cane Corso, surely this is dog is more closely related to the Cane Corso than he is the Mastino. He is agile, tight skinned and sinewy, signature characteristics of the Cane Corso. Couple that with the fact that he is on a boar hunt, a traditional utilization of the Cane Corso, a task that morpho-functionally is infinitely more suited to the agile Corso rather than the heavy Mastino.
Two Corso-like dogs amid the Sighthounds in the 18th-Century Fountain of Diana and Actaeon at the Royal Palace of Caserta.
Corso-like dog from a Neapolitan presepio, or nativity scene. After the Neapolitan Mastiff’s official recognition, the Cane Corso was still employed in this utilization. A miniature by Giovannino de Grassi (1390) shows a light, athletic Molossian-type dog with a prognathic, or undershot, jaw – an essential characteristic in type for the Cane Corso, even today. In the Fountain of Diana at Reggia di Caserta (1790), the last two dogs on the left are dogs with cropped ears, retracted abdomen and long, lean musculature. In an 18th-Century Neapolitan presepio, or crèche scene, there is a fawn Corso-like dog with a black mask, which is an essential characteristic of the Cane Corso. To my eye, these artifacts are clearly representative of the light version (Cane Corso archetype). Somehow this type of dog came to be known as “Cane Corso.” As I have stated earlier, I feel that Cane Corso is more of an adjective than a breed name. Around the 1100s, this adjective began to be associated with a specific type of dog, the light Molossian. Giulio Cesare Scaligero (1484-1558) in his translation and commentary in Latin of Aristotle’s Storia degli animali, speaks of large dogs employed in the hunt of bulls and boar (once again, historical Cane Corso utilizations) called “Alani,” “Corsi,” “dogas.” In Historia Animalium, De Quadrupedibus, Konrad von Gessner (1516-1564) wrote: “There are ferocious dogs in Corsica, brave in chasing and catching any kind of animal. You should prefer the ones with an impressive muzzle, a broad head, upper lips that hang over the lower ones, reddish eyes, dilated nostrils that seem to emit smoke, sharp teeth, heavy neck, and a broad chest; they go forward like lions, with their great feet and enormous toes: their toe nails are tough and curved in such a way that they have a better grip on the ground and fell the prey more violently. With this kind of dog it is easy for the hunters to catch and kill the game. In Italy, and above all Rome it is said that the Corsi (curshund) are used against wild boar and wild bulls. The molosso is huge and a great biter like the Corso. I believe he is considered a biter not because he attacks recklessly, but because he has such an energetic grip and never wants to let go. Besides, I know that when a Corso has his teeth in a boar or bull he can’t be separated him without strong interference from the hunter on his jaws.” This snippet is important because it narrates a distinction between the Mastino and the Corso. The Mastino is effective at delivering the killing blow while the Corso is also effective in the chase. These are just a few examples. The records that immortalize the Cane Corso in the Middle Ages are too abundant to cite, but include Tito Giovanni Scandiano, Giambattista Marino and Niccolo Macchiavelli. The common denominator in these missives is that the Cane Corso is mentioned by name, and he is described performing the very tasks that proved to be his salvation. Chief among historians during this period with respect to representing the Cane Corso and his everyday endeavors was Bartolomeo Pinelli. He must have had a deep affection for this type of dog because he included them in numerous engravings, whether the dog was the primary subject matter or just a prop included to dress up the scene. What I find extremely interesting is that the works of Dr. Flavio Bruno read like a narrative of Pinelli’s depictions. Dr. Bruno is a veterinarian from Santa Croce Di Magliano who was an essential contributor to the recovery of the Cane Corso in the 1980s, and has authored many books on the breed and its historical and socioeconomic utilizations in the rural southern Italian countryside. Dr. Bruno’s descriptions come from firsthand experience and from the accounts of those people who actually used and still use the Cane Corso on the farm or hunt – those who treasured and jealously guarded this breed and kept the flame lit from generation to generation. Pinelli’s renderings match the peasant-farmer accounts starkly; there is no mistake - these dogs from the days of Pinelli and the dogs of the meridone whose exploits are detailed in the tomes of Flavio Bruno are one in the same. You need look no further than Pinelli’s engraving that depicts two Corsos locked in combat. The scene depicted in the sketch has been relived countless times in the meridone. Here is Dr. Bruno’s description of a battle between the two contenders: “The two combatants reared up on their hind legs, chest against chest, their paws locked in a wrestler’s embrace, one on the other’s shoulders. They tried to knock each other to the ground and bite one another’s neck. One dog’s bites would be parried by the other’s teeth who, in turn, was attempting the same maneuver, and then a rapid succession of bites, pushes, losses of balance, and rapid recoveries would finally lead to the victory of the stronger dog.”
Pinelli engravings, circa 1900.
One can conclude that in some way Dr. Bruno is the literal interpreter for Pinelli; without trying, he narrates the artist’s renderings. In doing so, he validates the historical reality of the Cane Corso. Pinelli’s engravings illustrate the breed’s versatility. His depiction pits the Cane Corso against an enraged bull; he is a typical Cane Corso, cropped and docked, biting the bull’s ear to incapacitate it. It is no coincidence that these works, though generations apart, coincide so closely with the breed’s modern utilizations. That is because they are the same dog, as it was and as it is now – performing the same tasks it has for centuries.
Pinelli's interpretation of the times of the Roman Empire, from 1829.
The Last Bastion, The Remnants Of The Cane Corso
I have been in the company of important figures associated with the Neapolitan Mastiff here in the U.S., and been told that the Cane Corso is a peasant’s dog. I realize that this was meant as a slight, but I did not take it as such. There is no doubt this breed’s salvation was the peasant farmer of southern Italy. Without his employment, the Cane Coro’s fate would have been the same as ancient Rome – once proud, but now nothing more than a faded memory. What made the Cane Corso so valued was his diverse array of talents. Foremost was his tenacious character, but what set him apart from the Mastino was his agility and athleticism. The golden age of the Cane Corso was behind him, brought on by the advent of modern farming equipment, the devastating impact of war, and the migration north of a large part of the work force due in part to the industrial growth of Northern Italy. With the number of farms diminishing, the breed retreated further into the hinterland of the Italian south. With only remnants left, he could be found scattered in only the most remote parts of the meridone, far off the beaten path. These peasant farmers still valued his talents and still employed him in the traditional ways. They leave their own evidence, such as a family’s coat of arms; we are lucky enough to have some valuable photos, ceramics and accessories of the Cane Corso, such as the vraccale collar, used in the war with the wolf. There is also less tangible evidence such as anecdotes, proverbs, customs and sayings that intertwine this breed and his place in the meridone.
Canis pugnax on a Roman sarcophagus relief from 200 B.C. exhibits a very Cane Corso-like morphology.
In Sicily, it is said A cani corsi nun ci diri’ngirri, translated as “Don’t incite one who is already irascible.” As well as Oggi haiu vistu lu munni alla riversu ca lu liebru assicutava u cani corsu, or “Today I saw the world upside down; a hare was chasing a Cane Corso.” Paolo Breber tells us “there is a saying, he is ugly like a Cane Corso.” Giovanni Verga, in Malavoglia (Bad Will) in 1881, writes, “He bites worse than a cane Corso.” Tommaseo, in his dictionary, offers the metaphor “can corso, a man of proud aspect and attitude.”
Lucio Giunio Mederato Columella in his work De Re Rustica narrates this description of the ancient Mastino: … because a black dog has a more terrifying appearance; and during the day, a prowler can see him and be frightened by his appearance. When night falls, the dog, lost in the shadows, can attack without being seen. The head is so massive that it seems to be the most important part of the body. The ears fall toward the front, the brilliant penetrating eyes are black or gray, the chest is deep and hairy, the shoulder wide, the lags thick, the tail short, the hind legs powerful, the toenails strong and great. His temperament must be neither too gentle nor too ferocious and cruel; whereas the first would make him apt to welcome a thief, the second would make him predisposed to attack the people of the house. He should be of solemn and not merry character and must always react with rage against all intruders. Above all, these dogs not only must demonstrate vigilance in guarding without making a mistake but must be guarding out of diligence and a questioning nature rather than because they are fearful. … It does not matter that house guard dogs have heavy bodies and are not swift of foot. They are meant to carry out their work from close quarters and do not need to run far. In fact, these dogs want to stay behind closed walls or at the house without even trying to run off.They do their work very well by their astute sense of smell which informs them who is coming, and they warn with their bark whoever is approaching not to come near. And if the person persists in approaching, they violently attack. Indeed the most important quality in this dogs is that they are guard dogs and do not permit an attack. The second quality is that, if provoked, they will defend and fight with vigor and tenacity.
Cane Corso from the 1950s. When reading the first lines I thought perhaps Columella was describing our Corso: “The head is so massive that it seems to be the most important part of the body,” definitely a characteristic of the Cane Corso-type dog, as were the descriptions of the chest, shoulders and tail. However, the comparisons end there. “It does not matter that house guard dogs have heavy bodies and are not swift of foot. They are meant to carry out their work from close quarters and do not need to run far”:Clearly this references the heavy version, the Mastino archetype. Interestingly, Columella mentions the practice of cutting the dogs toes off so as to keep him bound to the property, an apparently not unusual practice called “lawing.” The Mastino was meant to be a pre-eminent guard dog, bred to be as frightening as possible. That was his historical utilization; while the Cane Corso-type dog shared in this type of work, the Mastino is specialized to do it. There is no disputing the existence of a Mastino-type dog, nor can we begrudge him the share of iconographical heritage that is rightfully his. I merely wish to point out that the Mastino does not have the market cornered with respect to these artifacts. There are clearly and indisputably two archetypes, the heavy version and the light. The mastinari cannot lay claim to both, just as we the Cane Corso devotees cannot claim the terracotta dog from Mesopotamia or the heavy mastiff from Corsica.
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